So much film theory pertaining to horror movies proposes that the genre allows the viewer to play with death from a safe distance. In “The Aesthetics of Fright,” for example, Morris Dickstein says that horror films are a “safe, routinized way of playing with death, like going on a roller coaster or parachute jump at an amusement park.” He adds that the fear of death is the “ultimate attraction of all horror films.” Few films do a better job addressing death, and for that matter grief, than 1979’s Phantasm, written and directed by Don Coscarelli. Forty years after its initial release, the movie’s dream logic, story-line, and growling villain, the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), are still just as arresting and mesmerizing.
From the outset, the movie deals with loss, after a seductress/Lady in Lavender (Kathy Lester) kills Tommy (Bill Cone) in the Morningside Cemetery as the Tall Man’s face flashes on the screen. Tommy’s only real function is to introduce the villain, trigger the narrative, and present the film’s overarching theme, especially when two of the good guys, Reggie the ice cream man (Reggie Bannister) and Jody (Bill Thornbury), discuss the sudden death of their friend and how best to process it. “Tommy’s gone. It’s hard to believe,” Reggie says. The movie then cuts to a scene where Jody visits his deceased parents in a funeral parlor/mansion and reflects upon that profound loss. It’s here where he first encounters the imposing Tall Man, who snarls, “The funeral’s about to begin, Sir.” The narrative then returns to Tommy’s funeral, where Reggie tells Jody that it’s best he didn’t allow his little brother, Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), to attend the service. Jody responds, “Yeah, after mom and dad’s funeral, he had nightmares for weeks.”
Mike, however, is obsessed with mortality and death. He hides in the bushes and watches the funeral through a set of binoculars. Mike then sees the Tall Man loading a casket into a hearse as though it is a pile of timber. Having already lost his parents, he’s terrified that he’s going to lose Jody, too, especially after he overhears him tell a neighbor that he’s thinking about sending Mike away.
Mike’s justified anxiety is what drives the film and one of the reasons that the Tall Man is such a memorable horror movie monster. He’s a manifestation of Mike’s dread and trauma. When the teen sees him downtown in one of the film’s most dream-like, slowed-down sequences, he’s horror-struck to the point that he backs up against a storefront and stares wide-eyed at the mortician. The Tall Man’s menacing stroll down Main Street is juxtaposed with Reggie and his ice cream truck in the same frame, perhaps a contrast between life and death. In a 1979 talk show interview featuring Coscarelli and Scrimm, included on the remastered DVD/Blu-ray released by Bad Robot Productions a few years ago, Scrimm said that he wanted to create a monster different than Boris Karloff’s sympathetic Frankenstein or Bela Lugosi’s sensual Dracula. “I wanted to create a character that was totally sinister,” he said, adding, “I began to think of the Tall Man as a representation of death.” Indeed, the Tall Man is such a villain, one who stalks Mike, Jody, and Reggie throughout the film, unleashing an army of demonic dwarves and strange spheres in the process.
In a 2016 interview, Coscarelli said his intention from the get-go was to make a film that explored the American way of death and our familiar funeral symbols, such as a black hearse, caskets, and a grim undertaker. He did not expect the film to take on so many surreal qualities and a fractured narrative, however. He stated, “But then I didn’t realize that at the same time, it would have these strange surreal qualities. Some of it was out of necessity due to the budget, and others were just those happy accidents that happen while you’re making a movie.” The film only had a budget of $35,000, and since it went over budget, Coscarelli relied on his dad to fund the rest, before Universal eventually acquired the rights. The limited funding and happy accidents only worked in the film’s favor, creating a 90-minute waking nightmare that forgoes straight narrative in honor of dream logic.
After a final confrontation between the good guys and the Tall Man, the film concludes with one more dream-like sequence. Mike wakes up, and we then learn that Jody died in a car accident, thus adding yet another layer of loss to Mike’s tumultuous life. Reggie does his best to comfort the teen, becoming his surrogate parent or older sibling, which makes the juxtaposition between the Tall Man and Reggie earlier in the film that much more impactful. Yet, like most horror films, the boogey man returns for one final scare. The Tall Man bellows the famous line “Boy” at Mike, while floating in his bedroom mirror before the credits roll. Mike is pulled into the darkness, and sure enough, there would be a sequel, four more, to be exact.
There are several questions that the ending raises, especially regarding reality versus dreams and what exactly was a manifestation of Mike’s psyche in terms of the narrative and imagery. What’s clear, though, is that Mike’s justified fear and curiosity of death isn’t resolved by the film’s conclusion. The Tall Man’s return in the last scene emphasizes how death is inevitable. In “The Aesthetics of Fright,” Dickstein notes that horror movies touch upon “basic fears that makes us all vulnerable.” In the case of Phantasm, that fear is mortality, loss, and abandonment. What makes the ending so jarring is that the Tall Man continues to torment Mike, even after he wakes up supposedly safe and guarded by Reggie. In fact, one of the last lines Mike says to Reggie is, “First he took mom and dad. Then he took Jody. Now he’s after me.” Poor kid!
Forty years later, Phantasm remains one of the best meditations on death, grief, and loss that the genre has to offer. Scrimm’s performance is simply iconic. He commands every frame that he’s in, be it the long white hallways of the funeral parlor or Mike’s bedroom. Each sequel would get weirder and weirder, but the original film, shot on a shoestring budget, occupies a rightful place in the horror canon and shows just how well the genre can address our more profound anxieties, in this case mortality.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.